Why you should care
An OZY series exploring the powers behind the powerful.
Behind every political leader, there’s at least one Whisperer. You know the type: They’re not necessarily camera-ready. They’re willing to get their hands dirty if needed. They operate on the fringes of the spotlight. But every leader needs a good one.
In this series, OZY is roaming the globe to give you a window into the key figures — past and present — whom you probably don’t know but who guide the tough decisions and help presidents consolidate power.
A Venezuelan living in exile in Florida, J.J. Rendón hates socialism with a passion — and the political strategist has promoted the right and done battle with leftists across Latin America. He doesn’t always win (see: Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador), but he’s built up an impressive roster of presidents (see: Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos). He’s also been accused of crossing the lines of legality, charges he fiercely denies, as he worries most acutely about the future of a Venezuela in crisis.
Since the founding of Bangladesh in 1971, Hossain Toufique Imam has always been a guiding force — whether it’s in an official or unofficial capacity. Of late, the 79-year-old has been a close adviser and confidante of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Hasina has had some rough times in her decade in office, doing battle with Islamists, but Imam’s forceful but restrained hand can be felt in her response to unrest. He’s also been dispatched as an informal diplomat to sell Bangladesh as a stable, fair and free democracy — of which the outside world is not always convinced. Now he’s guiding Hasina’s re-election campaign ahead of a Dec. 31 vote.
Roxelana, better known as “Hurrem Sultan,” employed a mix of intelligence and grace to transform herself from Suleiman the Magnificent’s favorite concubine into a key political operator in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th century. Serving as the sultan’s eyes and ears at home when he was off fighting wars, Roxelana oversaw construction projects and conducted diplomatic relations. She also successfully outmaneuvered Suleiman’s firstborn son from another marriage for power and, after her death, one of her sons became sultan.
Yelü Chucai, a 6-foot-8 Chinese scholar with a massive beard, began his relationship with Genghis Khan as a prisoner. But Chucai rose to chief adviser to one of the most consequential leaders in history, playing an instrumental part in softening the Khan’s blood-soaked rule and creating a robust taxation system that paved the way for the consolidation of the Silk Road.
Serigne Bassirou Abdou Khadre Mbacké is the key mediator between the Senegalese government and the millions-strong Mouride Sufi brotherhood, one of Senegal’s biggest Sunni brotherhoods. And even though as the spokesperson of the Mouride leader Mbacké is not a candidate and does not hold an official post, he could hold President Macky Sall’s re-election in his hands ahead of February’s vote. Just about any project around the holy city of Touba runs through him.
Swaminathan Gurumurthy, 69, is no economist, and his understanding of money is rooted in his professional training as a chartered accountant. Yet today, he is a part-time director of the Reserve Bank of India and has become one of the most important voices driving economic policy in India — more influential than a bevy of scholars and economists whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi had at his disposal, but has increasingly shunned. Gurumurthy was the key hidden voice behind India’s controversial 2016 “demonetization” of high value bank notes, and the recent sudden departure of RBI director Urjit Patel.
As Nigeria prepares for February’s presidential election, Archbishop Emeritus Maxwell Anikwenwa is among the critical Ibo ethnic group leaders who have shifted support away from President Muhammadu Buhari to challenger Atiku Abubakar, as Buhari struggles to live up to the high expectations that greeted his 2015 victory. The question of whether Africa’s most populous nation turns back to the political party that has dominated this century could fall to influential men like Anikwenwa who rouse religious fervor.
If the teacher turned clergyman for the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) is indeed a door to power, he would open without a creak. Such is his voice: calm, affectionate and authoritative without seeming imposing. Anikwenwa does not live to be known — only to influence things. He operates in the shadows, the object of relentless consultations from politicians seeking electoral victory.